While Pitkin County elected officials in 2012 met behind closed doors three times as often as their counterparts in City Hall, it’s less than what both governments engaged in last year.
According to public records, Pitkin County commissioners met 35 times in executive session this year while Aspen City Council met behind closed doors 11 times.
In 2011, commissioners held 39 executive sessions and the council had 17. And in 2010, commissioners excluded the public from their discussions in 52 instances; the council 17.
County officials last year said the large number of executive sessions in 2010 was related to the high volume of land acquisitions the commissioners dealt with, specifically the purchase of the Droste property for open space.
Colorado state law allows public bodies to go into executive session to discuss potential land acquisitions, pending or possible litigation, strategy relative to ongoing negotiations, personnel matters, or topics required to be kept confidential by federal or state law. Even when going into executive sessions, public bodies are required to describe in as much detail as possible why the closed-door meeting is necessary. Public officials often discuss more than one topic in executive session.
Potential oil and gas development, namely in the Thompson Divide area near Carbondale, was the topic of conversation among Pitkin County commissioners in 12 executive sessions this year.
But it was potential or ongoing litigation that was the subject most discussed behind closed doors for commissioners in 2012. They met 23 times in executive session regarding lawsuits or legal matters. Lawsuits the county is involved in include the Thompson Divide, disputes with landowners and two residents in Lenado over snowmobile parking, to name a few.
Negotiations regarding the pending federal land exchange with the Wexner family near the flanks of Mount Sopris was a topic of discussion that was closed off to the public 12 times this year.
Commissioner Jack Hatfield voted against going into executive session regarding the Wexner land exchange in April, which appears to be the only time a county elected official voted against going into a closed-door meeting this year, according to public records.
Commissioners met four times concerning an intergovernmental agreement for the operations of the city’s proposed hydro plant project, which is now stalled after the November “no” advisory vote by Aspen residents.
They also discussed the now-approved airport master plan behind closed doors three times; personnel matters accounted for six meetings; open space negotiations or acquisitions, 13 times; and land purchases were the subject of seven closed sessions.
Personnel matters, including the evaluation of the county manager and county attorney, accounted for six closed meetings, and one concerning the firing of and subsequent settlement with former Pitkin County sheriff deputy Ann Stephenson.
The commissioners met once in executive session to talk about the FBI’s investigation into the sheriff’s office, which, according to sources, hasn’t materialized into any substantive action.
Commissioners privately met once about the county’s role in hosting the USA Pro Challenge bike race next year and once concerning the appointment of volunteers for the government’s citizen review boards.
Drought strategy was the topic of one executive session in March.
County Attorney John Ely was unavailable for comment to discuss the reasoning behind that closed-door meeting or any of the others that were held this year.
Closed doors in council chambers
City Council met, on average, less than once a month in executive session in 2012.
Litigation led the reasons for the closed meetings, with four of them being about potential or ongoing lawsuits and three concerning legal advice.
City Attorney Jim True said litigation concerning Aspen resident Marilyn Marks, who sought access to ballot images from the 2009 election, is still a topic that the council is dealing with, even though the state Supreme Court effectively ruled in her favor this year. Marks’ 2009 litigation, as well as a similar case concerning the 2011 election, was the main reason why council held executive sessions this year. The last time council discussed her case was on Dec. 3, as there are still outstanding issues on the city’s responsibility for her attorney’s fees.
“I bet most of the executive sessions were over the Marks cases in one form or another,” True said.
The council also met behind closed doors three times regarding personnel issues and three times under the “negotiations” statute.
There was one meeting in November that was characterized as “security arrangements,” but True could not recall the topic. The city’s incentive package to secure next year’s USA Pro Challenge bike race also was a discussion during that meeting.
True said it was necessary to go into executive session regarding the bike race so council and city officials were clear on what the municipal government was offering to race organizers, without competing cities knowing what Aspen was willing to give to be a host.
Overall, True, who is finishing his first year as city attorney after the retirement of John Worcester, said he thinks there is great value in having executive sessions to protect the attorney-client privilege, but he tries to have them as infrequently as possible.
“There are certain things that need to be privileged or it is a detriment to the city,” he said. “[But] I would error on the side of being out in the open.”